On Black Friday 2021, Tia Ja’nae, a Pulitzer Prize nominated playwright and indie award winning author, released her debut novel Ghosts On The Block Never Sleep. The novel, which chronicles the titular main character’s dalliances as a criminal to survive being outsourced as a tradeswoman on Chicago’s east side, was highly anticipated. She spoke with RedX Magazine about the controversy surrounding her novel and whether or not a sequel is in the works.
Why do you think so many people anticipated your novel coming out?
My novel was about five years in the making. When I started writing short story crime fiction the scene was falling apart. There were a handful of writers that had been there from the beginning self-policing content and taking it upon themselves to enforce a political correctness you can’t have realistically writing about murder, mayhem, and whoring. A lot of imprints shut their doors from all of the attacks on social media and cancel culture going on by this fringe group. That’s how Pulp Modern stopped publishing crime, why Scotch Rutherford shut down Switchblade Magazine, and so many great imprints were insolvent. While a lot of this was going on I was shopping my novel. Initially it was at Shotgun Honey, but it sat over there for about two years collecting dust. Alec Cizak read some of my stuff and offered me a deal at Uncle B. Publications, LLC. By the time Ron got around to getting it on schedule I pulled out for the better deal. A lot of this stuff I was public about, so that helped build the hype about the novel. It did help that I fell in with the Bad Boys of Independent Crime Fiction [laughs]. Alec Cizak, A.B. Patterson, Scotch Rutherford, Andrew Miller definitely paid me good lip service.
Can you divulge the controversy surrounding Ghosts On The Block Never Sleep?
Which one [laughs]? The biggest and most significant was Amazon shadow banning the book. From the first day they hamstrung it. This is a very long story so I’ll just cover the top issues. They [Amazon] ensured I never got proof copies nor did my publisher. People couldn’t leave reviews for the book because they blocked it. The final straw was Amazon bootlegging the book and their lack of quality and assurance as the distribution company. Copies were going out print on demand without notifying the publisher which from my understanding wasn’t the agreement from the original distribution deal. They refused to make the changes we sent them. It’s a long story but in the end legal counsel had to be called and consulted for me to get my book from their clutches. They [Amazon] were petty about this and not only removed all my solo stuff from their shelves but sent cease and desist to other booksellers as well.
What was so suggestive in the content that would make Amazon react this way?
Since they never bothered to divulge I can’t give a reason. Howsoever, there are some floating racial slurs in the book that could have grinded their gears. I made a conscious decision to spell all racial slurs out in correct English – since they use AI this could have been interpreted out of context. Since they didn’t consult with me and chose to just give a hard time to force me to quit I don’t know.
Do you think using racial slurs was moral responsible and necessary?
Racial slurs, for better or worse, a part and parcel of American life and as American as a slice of apple pie. People in this country of all races say racial slurs all the time – this is life in America. Either way I don’t think we should judge those we feel are using such language as irresponsible. Whether or not we like what they say, defend their right to say it how they feel it needs to be said. If it’s too much for your sensibilities and taste, the option of putting it down and reading something else exists. As I said in another interview the word nigger stings the most and rings the loudest because of its connotation to Black American History and its societal double standards depending on the race of the person saying it. Certain segments of the reading population will give me a pass and some will question why I didn’t write the racial epithets in alternative ethnic spelling as opposed to its correct one when black characters say it, as if that makes it cool and okay. By spelling it as the dictionary intended I get my point across through my characters as the readers that they are living in a world of hatred, struggle, and oppression. The racial epithets as words are just as ugly as the world view my characters have due to their environment.
You’ve been very vocal about critics proclaiming Ghosts On The Block Never Sleep is not a cross genre tour de force novel. Why is that?
The attitude of being cross-genre in the literary world means your book gets placed nowhere. Not that writers are getting placed anywhere these days with Barnes and Noble going full on college bookstore. A lot of times it’s a good way to bury a book that can possibly be competition for something more popular. I also don’t think Ghosts On The Block Never Sleep is horror or any other genre many proclaim it to be – to me it’s just a slice of life in Chicago. I’ve always maintained the book is gritty political fiction with elements of different genres, but I’m sure it won’t be listed as that. Remember, women in books like this aren’t considered to be as vicious, hardened, and cold blooded as their male counterparts unless romance is involved in some way. My protagonist is definitely different in her motivations, so her sharp left turn in different directions may be misinterpreted to fit other people’s assumptions on what the book should be classified as.
There has been a lot of reviews saying Ghosts On The Block Never Sleep is a cult classic. What is your take on that?
I wouldn’t go that far yet. I will say it is a collector’s item. A lot of people hit me up or hit Uncle B. up trying to buy copies. I don’t even have a copy of the book. I’m sure there are plenty of used books out there floating here and there but thus far everybody seems to have to scavenge to find one. I refused to release digital copies and the slated hardback edition never came out over the issues with Amazon.
Will a second release ever happen you think?
If I have to deal with Amazon, never. I’ll put it in the public domain first. Amazon’s pettiness taking all my work from other booksellers was them bullying me. They’ve done the same to profitable indie authors kicking them off their platform. Their limitations and treatment of indie and self-publishers is abysmal and doesn’t leave you with good options like their adamant stance on prohibiting pocket paperbacks. Unfortunately they’ve bought up everybody and who they haven’t Barnes and Noble has on the indie side of things. Until independent publishers and writers alike demand less monopolies their censorship and faux sense of morality will continue.
Let’s talk about your work. A lot of your writing takes place in Chicago. Why is that?
This is the number one question I’m asked a lot. The simple answer – Chicago will beat the hell out of you. It’s [Chicago’s] past is the reason why I write about it so candidly. Race relations, taxation, political corruption – these are all constant elements of living there and opens the door for discussion. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories and seen Chicago as the nation’s punching bag for criminal behavior and a host of illegal mischief the last few years, especially when it comes to mayhem and murder. What’s always fascinated me is the knee jerk reaction to condemn it without understanding how it wound up becoming more infamous than Detroit – exploring the what, where, who, and how circumstances that brought Chicago to the state it exists in today. Right now Chicago is known as the bastion of violence. This just didn’t happen overnight – this has been something designed and orchestrated over the last fifty years. Is it a bad scene, yes. Should people judge it, no, because they don’t know or don’t care to examine the mitigating factors coming from City Hall and its policies since Daley [Richard J. Daley] that contributed to the problems that are over glorified in the media today.
Do you think Chicago, whether directly or indirectly, influences your storytelling?
Absolutely. I’m born, raised, and lived there. Most, if not all of my work explores how the racism, segregation, discrimination, and political corruption in Chicago contributed to the heightened level of violence, especially when it comes to the city’s bad policies that have taxed most viable employers out, forced black people out, pitted races against each other, etc. I just use these elements as plot points and backdrops. It’s not just me either. Go all the way back to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun. The same issues she highlighted in 1959 Chicago are still prevalent in today’s Chicago, if not worse. A lot of my work is to just open up a discussion where people understand that Chicago is what it is because politicians created and profited from it being a survival of the fittest. The people living here are just like everybody else, some just are doing whatever they feel they have to do to survive, and sometimes that can lead them down a road they never thought they’d go, or get to a point of indifference because survival cares not for emotion.
One last question. Do you foresee a sequel to Ghosts On The Block Never Sleep?
I will neither confirm nor deny the existence of a sequel at this time [laughs]. Maybe. No one that is left publishing independent crime fiction would dare publish a story let alone a novel from me at this point. Call it an irreconcilable difference divorce. I’ve moved on to other genres where I’m free to submit without a lot of bullshit and high school level cliquishness that has all but shattered the scene from being what it once was. For right now my answer is maybe.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.